It’s not just the virus itself — ever since the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak began, we’ve been battling a pandemic of disinformation (an infodemic, as it was also called). Pseudoscience, myths, and outright falsehoods were propagated more than usual, and, concerningly, often by high-ranking figures. Unfortunately, months later, after millions of confirmed infections, we’re still battling some of these myths. Here are just some of the more common ones.
We’ll start with this one because it is the most insidious. In many ways, COVID-19 resembles the flu. It’s an infectious disease, it targets the respiratory systemits symptoms are somewhat similar (both can cause body aches, fever, and a cough). Both illnesses are usually mild but can be severe and can cause pneumonia.
This being said though, COVID-19 is much more dangerous than the flu. COVID-19 mortality is far greater than that of the flu. It’s unclear just how much more since the data is still evolving, but several times greater, and potentially even 10 times more. To make matters even worse, COVID-19 can also cause long-lasting health problems in survivors, from lung scarring to heart damage.
Myth: Masks are useless
Face masks aren’t perfect — we’ve heard this since the start of the pandemic. They grant more protection to the ones around than to the wearers themselves; and yet, face masks are one of our most valuable allies in the pandemic.
Some masks are better, like the N95 respirators used by medical workers, others are less effective, like the surgical or cloth masks more common in the general population. But even though these masks aren’t perfect, they’re still very useful. Think about it this way: COVID-19 can spread exponentially, so when we’re using masks that prevent, say, 70% of cases, you’re not just preventing 70% of potential infections — you’re also preventing the secondary infections that those people would pass on to others. To put that into perspective, a recent study concluded that in the US alone, masks could prevent over 50 million cases.
Myth: Antibiotics can prevent/treat it
Antibiotics work against bacteria, not viruses. COVID-19 is caused by a virus, and therefore antibiotics cannot work to prevent or treat COVID-19.
Antiviral treatments are being tested for treating COVID-19. Remdesivir is the only such drug to gain large-scale approval, but as of November, the World Health Organization recommends against using Remdesivir as a treatment. Overall, the effectiveness of the drug remains debated.
Myth: cold/warm weather kills the coronavirus
Studies have been inconclusive as to how much weather can reduce the transmission of the virus, but whatever this effect may be, researchers believe it to be of minor importance compared to other parameters. As for actually destroying the virus itself, that’s not the case.
Neither cold nor warm weather can destroy the virus, since it inhabits the human body, where the temperature is relatively constant, and it can survive long enough for transmission. Temperature may slow down its transmission, but it won’t kill it off.
Myth: cases are increasing because of testing
A favorite myth of populist politicians was that cases are rising because of increased testing. Obviously, the cases are what the cases are but presumably, the argument here was that increased testing creates the illusion of cases going up, when this is not actually the case. This was even used as an argument against testing, which would be very counterproductive since testing is vital to find the people who are infected and isolate them.
In practice, researchers don’t only look at the number of cases, they also look at the positivity rate. If your positivity rate is low (<5% is the generally recommended rate — meaning that 5% of people who are tested test positive), then this suggests the rate of infection is low. If you increase the number of tests and the positivity rate increases, this shows the number of infections really is higher than we thought and that testing was inadequate to give the true number.
Myth: Since there are so many cases, we should just give up
In the initial part of the outbreak, authorities were generally hoping to contain the disease and reduce cases to zero. Now, that no longer seems possible in most parts of the world. But this doesn’t mean we should give up.
The idea of flattening the curve is still very much relevant, and having the number of cases spread out to avoid overwhelming ICU facilities is very important. In addition, delaying the spread of disease and buying time is important for developing vaccines, testing treatments, or building additional support infrastructure
Myth: Children are immune to the coronavirus
Anyone, of any age, can develop COVID-19. So far, the vast majority of cases have been in adults, but children are not immune.
Myth: It’s just old people who are vulnerable to the disease
Older people and those with pre-existing health conditions are most vulnerable to the effects of the virus. However, SARS-CoV-2, like all viruses, can be transmitted to people of any age.
People in vulnerable groups are more likely to become severely ill, but the virus often behaves in unpredictable ways. While rare, cases where young, seemingly healthy people become severely ill have been reported. Furthermore, even if you’re asymptomatic or exhibit mild symptoms, COVID-19 can still cause long-term damage.
Myth: Lockdowns did nothing and were unnecessary
We’ve seen just how quickly the number of cases can surge, but some people still argue that since the lockdowns were unsuccessful in eliminating the virus, they were unnecessary.
Again, this falls into the ‘flattening the curve’ idea, to prevent the number of infections from rising faster than medical facilities can cope with. But just as importantly, letting the virus spread uncontrolled (or with minimal measures) would come at a dramatic cost.
Myth: We can reach herd immunity (without vaccines)
Most epidemiologists who study pandemics believe that for this type of virus, we need about 70% of the population to develop immunity before we can achieve some form of herd immunity. In the US alone, this would translate to around 2 million fatalities and a catastrophic number of hospitalizations (up to 10 million). These estimates are on the conservative side, since if this were to happen, hospitals would be overrun and the fatality rate would go up (among people who aren’t even infected with COVID-19).
In addition to these horrific estimates, the economic damage would be incalculable, far greater than what the lockdowns are doing. The lockdowns aren’t perfect, they can be applied with more precision, but overall, they helped contain the virus. A lockdown works as a sort of last-ditch measure when community transmission is already very high. Letting it run rampant would be disastrous.
Myth: We must choose between health and economy
Policymakers weigh health and the economy all the time, this is not a new issue. When a municipality chooses how many medical workers or ambulances to have, it’s weighing money against human health. In other words, policymakers decide at which point it becomes unfeasible to invest more into saving money. In this sense, there’s always a choice to be made. But in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s different.
Many politicians (and a few scientists) have taken the stance that we shouldn’t sacrifice the economy to keep the virus in check. Another (more valid) argument is that if the economy takes a hit, health also takes a hit (the relationship between the economy and health is established to some extent, but it’s still a hotly debated topic). However, most researchers have pointed out that most of the time, this is a moot choice. The quickest way to restart the economy is to keep the virus in check. A short-term recession (as is expected, if we keep the pandemic in check) is not associated with a decrease in life expectancy, and in fact, evidence shows that these short recessions may help people live longer on average — not to mention that a workforce that’s ill or grieving isn’t a very effective workforce. Broadly speaking, we can’t have a healthy, functioning economy as long as the virus is running rampant.
Myth: Vaccines haven’t been tested properly
The recent vaccine announcements from the likes of Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca have sent ripples through the world. Finally, an end to the pandemic was on the horizon. But many were skeptical. Where researchers saw amazing progress (after all, we were repeatedly told that 1 year is an optimistic timeline for a vaccine, and this is sooner), others saw “it’s too quick to be good,” and the conspiracy theories were quick to pop up.
With the exception of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, which seems to have been granted approval before large-scale trials, the other mentioned vaccines have shown their efficacy in large-scale trials, and developers were not allowed to take any shortcuts in regards to vaccine safety. The mRNA vaccines don’t alter your DNA (as was propagated on some social media). A single illness put an entire clinical trial on hold, and the trial was only resumed when it was shown that the illness had nothing to do with the vaccine. Vaccine side effects like fever or swelling do happen, but they don’t typically cause any long-term effects.
Myth: Vaccines mean the pandemic is over
Producing a vaccine for a new virus in less than a year is a remarkable achievement. But producing the vaccine is one thing, vaccination of billions of people is another issue.
For starters, vaccines like Pfizer’s and Moderna’s need to be stored and transported at very low temperatures, which raises problems in terms of cost, infrastructure, and logistics. Then, there’s the matter of availability — it takes time to produce a lot of vaccines, and so there will be a distribution system in order: medical workers, at-risk populations, and key workers will be the first to receive the vaccine, and it will be months or maybe even more than a year before the general population can get vaccinated. Then, there’s the problem of whether people want to get the vaccine: many in the target groups have expressed hesitancy and would rather ‘wait’ before getting vaccinated. Vaccines are a way out of the pandemic — but actually walking the path is still a ways away.
Myth: The virus is mutating and getting worse
All viruses mutate slightly when they replicate, and can, in time, become more dangerous. But the vast majority of these mutations don’t have any effect, or can even make the virus less dangerous. Of course, the opposite can still happen.
So far, it seems that the observed mutations don’t interfere with the mechanisms of immunity, so shouldn’t affect the effectiveness of a vaccine. However, some studies have suggested that it may be getting more contagious with some mutations. It’s not entirely clear just how the virus is mutating in different parts of the world, but so far at least, it doesn’t seem to be mutating to cause more severe forms of disease.